Current Theme

picture of city from above

Research Theme for 2019-2020

Politics in the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa have experienced serious political upheaval since the beginning of the 21st century. These events have corresponded with specific developments such as the ever-accelerating penetration of the Internet and social media from the late 1990s, followed by the attacks of 9/11 and the American military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which further destabilized both societies. Then followed the second oil price boom (2004-2014), the dramatic increases in commodity prices (fuel, wheat, steel, etc.) and the inability of governments to maintain public subsidies for basic foodstuffs and energy.  All this took place as the region continued to suffer from unaccountable governance, endemic corruption of the political elite and crony capitalism as well as the repression and brutalization of citizens and the lack of economic opportunities. This welter of factors ultimately led to an explosion of popular anger and mobilization, beginning in late 2010 and lasting until today.  Governments throughout the region have responded with more repression, and in some cases, as in Syria, with the wholesale destruction of much of the country and the displacement of half its citizens. The research focus of the Transregional Institute (TRI) during the academic years 2019-2021 will be on the developments mentioned above. TRI’s researchers will take into account the political history of the region and analyze these recent dynamics using different disciplinary approaches with the aim of providing a better understanding of these contemporary political, social and economic changes in the Middle East and North Africa.


Past Themes


Research Theme for 2017-2019

The Political Economy of the Gulf and its Relations with East Asia

The persistently low oil prices since late 2014 have led a number of Gulf Cooperation Council countries to engage in major economic reform programs as well as serious belt tightening with respect to public expenditure. The aim of these programs is to permanently lower fiscal obligations and to diversify their economies away from a heavy dependence on oil and gas revenues. This is not the first time these countries have faced such constraints and in the past, they have failed at reducing their heavy dependence on oil rents. Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is the most serious example of such a renewed reform effort and it is worthy of careful study. Among the policies that are associated with Vision 2030 are reductions in subsidies for oil, electricity and water, which signal a serious intent to carry through with real change and reform this time around. Combined with these reforms the GCC countries have increased engagement (e.g., FDI, cooperation among SOEs, student scholarship programs) with countries in East Asia, most notably China, which represent the most important future consumers of Middle Eastern energy resources. The economic models adopted by countries like China, and perhaps more importantly Singapore, have been noticed in the Gulf and there is a desire to reproduce some aspects of these. This has been especially the case in the smaller countries of the GCC, such as the United Arab Emirates, but now even Saudi Arabia wishes to follow suit. To what extent can Singapore's experience be replicated in the Gulf is a question worth exploring, too. The Transregional Studies Institute at Princeton will be focusing in the academic years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 on such questions of political economy as well as on the commercial and political ties between the Gulf and the rest of Asia across the Indian Ocean.



Research Theme for 2016-2017

Religion and Political Violence in the Middle East

The high level of violence associated with movements like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya, not to mention Boko Haram in Nigeria, raises important questions about how religious ideas and history are appropriated and used by political groups.  Some have argued that to situate these movements properly, one has to examine the religious nature and content of their ideologies and actions. Others have claimed that it is social, economic, political, and historical factors--as opposed to the properly religious—that provide the actual context for understanding self-declared jihadist actors.  The Transregional Institute would like to focus this year’s theme on the relationship between religion and violence, concentrating in particular on the history and ideologies of Jihadi-Salafi movements.



Research Theme for 2013-2015

The Language of Politics and the Politics of Language

The relationship between language and politics in the Middle East is fraught and little studied. The Republic of Turkey adopted a language policy that irrevocably changed Turkish and then deployed this as an instrument for molding a new national identity. Similarly, Arab nationalism used Arabic for ideological purposes, adopting specific rhetorical registers, vocabularies and tropes that are now being abandoned with the rise of new regimes with an Islamist orientation. As with the nationalists, Islamists have deliberately used language to advance their ideas about society and their political agendas. In so doing, they shun certain usages and terms while privileging others. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, has developed a repertoire of slogans and terms for promoting its distinctive ideological worldview. The government of Saudi Arabia has also used particular registers of Islamic theology and law to specific ends. These, however, are nonetheless contested by Islamists and liberal-minded activists who seek greater accountability and transparency in governance. And the fraught process of constitutional drafting in Egypt provides another good illustration of the importance of language. The relationship between language and politics, at the state as well as the street level, is the theme that the Institute for Transregional Studies wishes to explore during the academic year 2013-2014.



Research Theme for 2011-2013

Contestation in the Contemporary Arab World

The recent uprisings in the Arab world, the so-called “Arab Spring,” represent a watershed in the history of this region and its peoples, from Morocco to the Gulf. The stability and endurance of the Arab state has been called into question, as has “Arab exceptionalism” in resisting political change and the democratic wave that swept many regions of the globe in the late twentieth century. The Institute of Transregional Study would like to sponsor research that explores these events in-depth and what they mean for the territorial states, governments, societies, national boundaries as well as the regional system.  Is the Arab system of states as rigid as has been claimed? Has Islamism given way to secular forms of politics? Can demographics, the so-called “youth bulge,” explain what we are witnessing? What has been the role of women? What is the role of social media and the information revolution in bringing this about? Has the rise in commodity prices also played a role? Are different types of regime affected differently by these developments (monarchies vs. republics; rentier states vs. production states)? What about the differences in the social makeup of these states? Are homogenous populations (e.g., Tunisia, Egypt) more able to effect change peacefully than those in which regional, sectarian or tribal cleavages are prominent (e.g., Syria, Yemen)? Successful fellows will be expected to tackle such questions. In the process, the Institute hopes that their research will contribute to a better understanding of these important events and offer ideas and frameworks for how to think about them as well as consider potential policy implications.



Research Theme for 2010-2011

The Resources of Contemporary Regimes in the Arab World

Recent scholarship on the politics in the Arab World has often focused on dissent and opposition to the state. In this literature, it is often taken for granted that the regimes in power lack legitimacy and that without their overwhelmingly coercive instruments of domination they would collapse and be replaced by more legitimate and representative groups. A robust view argues that in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Islamists of one hue or another would assume power if given a chance. But can the endurance of Arab governments be explained through coercion alone? Are social movements the only legitimate political forces in the Arab world? What are the resources at the disposal of contemporary Arab regimes? The Institute would like to sponsor research that seeks to ascertain the balance of coercion, co-optation and legitimation in the Arab world, as well as to assess the political, economic and symbolic resources of contemporary states. Successful fellows will investigate the ways and methods these regimes coerce and co-opt their citizens as well as enjoin obedience and manufacture legitimacy for their rule.



Research Theme for 2008-2010

Youth Culture and Politics in the Arab and Muslim Worlds

It is often remarked that there has been a demographic explosion in the Arab and Muslim worlds and that at least 65% of the population of any given country in this region is under the age of 30. Yet little else is known about this segment of the population. What are the forms of sociability that dominate amongst its members? How do youth deal with the reality of political oppression, conservative mores and mobility closure? Boredom, humiliation, sexual segregation, football and violence, in its many forms, are features in the lives of Arab and Muslim youth. Whereas most do not have access to the Internet, a good number do, especially in the Gulf countries. This and other technologies, such as the cellular telephone and Bluetooth, render possible certain forms of communication, some transgressive, and entertainment as well as ideas of community that were previously unimaginable. In turn this has produced new social realities and categories (internet jihadis; Facebook exhibitionists, E-mail novelists, etc). We hope to examine these and other questions pertaining to the culture and politics of Arab and Muslim youth.